Before you take the ACT, you have two options:

  1. You can study. You’ll know what a good ACT score is and what to expect ahead of time.
  2. Or you can show up on test day, cross your fingers and wonder, “Gosh, how long is the ACT, anyway?”

The best way to be sure you’re ready for the ACT is to prep ahead of time. You might think it’s impossible to study for the ACT. It’s true that you won’t exactly know what to expect, but studying can help you conquer this all-important exam.

Here’s how to study for the ACT in 5 steps.

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What is the ACT? 

Lots of schools require the ACT for admission. This means you’re probably thinking about applying to a liberal arts college, large state university, community college or another type of college.

What does ACT stand for, anyway? The ACT originally stood for American College Test, but now it’s just called by its three letters — A–C–T. The ACT evaluates your skills in five core areas: English, math, reading, science and writing. The writing test is an optional part of the exam. Here’s a quick overview of each ACT component.

45 minutes60 minutes35 minutes35 minutes40 minutes
75 questions60 questions40 questions40 questionsOptional
Tests usage, mechanics and rhetorical skillsTests pre-algebra, algebra, coordinate geometry, plane geometry and trigonometryVarious passage topics include social studies, natural science, literary narrative or prose fiction and humanitiesTests data analysis, experimental results and conflict viewpointsEvaluates your position on an issue after you read and write an answer to a question

How to Study for the ACT

First, figure out how much extra time you have to study before you make a plan to commit to studying over a particular amount of time.

Second of all, figure out how much time you have before you need to take the test. Do you have six months? Two weeks? Two days? It’s obvious that the earlier you start, the more comfortable you’ll feel with each section of the test. A study plan can help you spend the right amount of time on each topic.

Here’s how to piece together the right study schedule for you.

Step 1: Get a study book.

A study book is an invaluable asset. You could pop by the school library or hit Amazon for a study book that you’ll get to keep (remember, you might take the test again!). The first thing you may be struck by is that these books weigh about 10,000 pounds each (kidding, kidding — but they’re gigantic)! Books from reputable companies such as Kaplan or McGraw-Hill offer excellent supplemental materials to prep for ACT test day. Be sure to look for content that contains lots of practice tests.

Step 2: Take a practice test so you know what you need to study.

Speaking of practice tests, what do you know about yourself and your needs? A diagnostic test is the only way you’ll know exactly what you need to work on. You might think you know which tests will stymie you, but you might be surprised. Maybe you predicted that the English test would trip you up, but you might have trouble finishing the mathematics test. (As you can guess, time pressure is a huge factor on the ACT. How well you handle it can affect your score.)

Practice tests can help you see where you are relative to your target score. Take an official ACT practice test to gauge your overall progress and pinpoint your weaknesses.

Here’s how:

  1. Make sure you time each test exactly right.
  2. Give yourself the break that’s built into the test (grab a PB&J during the break if you need one).
  3. Eliminate distractions. For heaven’s sake, turn off your phone and Netflix. 
  4. Try to simulate actual test conditions as much as possible — that means taking all the tests in order. Going through all the sections in a row forces you to get a feel for your actual ACT experience. 

Do you know your starting point scores from a previous test or practice test? That’s excellent — it means you’ll be able to shape up a perfect study plan. 

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Step 3: Hammer together a study plan. Then study.

Desk! Books! Lights! Do a light review, read a paragraph or two, and then… what?

Studying for the ACT is only effective if you do it. Diligently. Plan out how much you’ll devote to slaying the ACT every day, night or afternoon. For example, your plan might look something like this: 

  • 6-7:30 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays: Study for the English test (and during study halls)
  • 6-7 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays: Study for the mathematics test
  • 4-6 p.m. Sundays: Study for the science and reading tests; reserve extra time for taking practice tests, too.

Make this schedule happen over a period of a few months for best results.

Let’s say you’ve already taken the ACT and want to increase your test results by a couple of points. You may have to do some in-depth content work to address gaps in your knowledge.  

Time yourself and take notes on where you need to bolster your knowledge. If you notice you’re not doing well on the trig section of the math test, switch to your school math books to brush up. 

Stick with it. Everyone has different study habits and time restrictions, so be sure to take breaks from your schedule if necessary. Remember that you’re not going to do yourself any favors if you’re not serious about studying.

Step 4: Look into other study options if necessary.

Studying by yourself can be a real drag if that isn’t really your learning style. Think about yourself and how you learn best in school. You might be the type of person who likes flying solo when you study for a math test or you might enjoy discussing an upcoming science test with a group of friends (as long as you can get something done when you’re studying with your buddies).

Here are a few other options if flying solo isn’t really working for you: 

  • Study with a friend or group of friends.
  • Take a class at your school or local community college.
  • Use an ACT study app.
  • Opt for individual tutoring sessions.

Don’t forget to consider the logistics of how you’ll plan to study and whether that’s conducive to getting things done. For example, you might have a stellar college-aged tutor who can help you with your math, but she may only be available on Tuesday nights, when you have jazz band practice. Or maybe you’re in 16 extracurricular activities at your high school and you don’t have time to study — until, oh, about 12 a.m. — after you’re done with your homework.

Step 5: Test yourself — make it fun!

We know we’ve already mentioned this, but it doesn’t hurt to say it again. Test, test, test… and test again. There’s something to recognizing the rhythm of the test and understanding how fast you need to move between questions. Half the battle is understanding the test and its structure.

Studying for the ACT isn’t exactly like taking a Caribbean cruise. In fact, you might even argue that there’s nothing fun about it. But you can make it fun. Challenge yourself. See how fast you can get through a reading test or science test. Try to beat your score every time you take a practice exam.

Decide When You’ll Take the ACT

Most admissions counselors (what does an admissions counselor do, anyway?) recommend taking the ACT during your junior year. But you may decide to take it as a senior because you’re just not quite ready to take it as a junior — you may want more trigonometry under your belt! Just allow yourself enough time to be able to take it again if necessary.

Some states allow you to take the test for free. Check with your school counselor learn more about taking the ACT for free.

The ACT (and SAT, for that matter) can be taken as often as you like — but know that it can be very difficult to raise your score unless you put in some serious studying effort.

The ACT is always offered during the following months: 

  • February
  • April
  • June
  • July (Note: The ACT is not offered in New York state in July.)
  • September
  • October
  • December

Don’t forget to sign up for the ACT by the registration deadline. The registration deadline is usually a month or two preceding the test date. For example, the April 4, 2020 test registration deadline is February 28 and your scores will first be available April 14. Learn more about upcoming tests.

Missed the registration deadline? No worries. You can still sign up — you’ll just have to pay an extra fee. 

Visit ACT for more information about test dates and learn how to register for a test. Buckle down, study and finally, good luck!

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